In a fictional scrimmage — or maybe even a real one, depending on how Wolves coach Ryan Saunders would divide up teams — on which group of five Wolves players would you want to place your bet:
*D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Josh Okogie and Ed Davis, with Jake Layman off the bench. Or ...
*Jordan McLaughlin, Anthony Edwards, Jaylen Nowell, Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, with Jarred Vanderbilt off the bench.
If we're being completely truthful, the answer is probably the first group. But the fact that I even have to think twice about is perhaps the most interesting — maddening and encouraging, all at once — thing about this 6-17 Wolves season-to-date.
I dipped my toes into this subject toward the end of Monday's Daily Delivery podcast, but I want to explore it more here.
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That first group includes three of the Wolves' four highest-paid players and accounts for about $70 million in cap space. It's full of experienced guys who were supposed to provide a backbone of support for a team with a lot of youth.
But that first group also includes some of the Wolves' most disappointing players through 23 games. Russell has the worst net rating (minus-14.5 per 100 possessions) of any Wolves player player who has seen regular minutes this year. Okogie, Rubio and Davis are all minus-10 or worse in net rating. Rubio and Davis have found a little more of their footing lately, but neither has come close to thriving in their roles. Beasley has probably been the Wolves' most consistent veteran all season, but even he shows up with a team-worst minus-14.7 net rating over the last 10 games.
The huge caveat is that those players have barely had the benefit of playing with the Wolves' best and most expensive player, Karl-Anthony Towns, this season. KAT has missed all but four games with a wrist injury and while recovering from COVID but is trending toward a return fairly soon. Russell, in particular, should see a huge uptick in at least offensive efficiency when he is able to run pick-and-rolls with Towns.
Then again, those young players in Group B haven't had the benefit of playing with Towns, either. And they seem to be thriving. Over the last handful of games, they have emerged as the heartbeat of this team.
They have played well enough individually and collectively to raise the question of whether two rookies and three other second-year players — one a second-round pick and two of them undrafted free agents — would be the preferable option in a game of 5-on-5 over a group of far more established players.
Nowell leads the Wolves in net rating at plus-9.4 and McDaniels is right behind him at plus-8.7. Edwards has stacked up a lot of encouraging games lately, including a 20-point, eight-rebound, four-assist effort in Saturday's 120-118 loss to Oklahoma City. Reid had 29 points in that game and almost willed the Wolves to a win.
McLaughlin seems to do something positive every time he is given minutes, which has been semi-regularly as the third point guard behind Russell and Rubio, both of whom have missed multiple games this year. His net rating in his last six games is plus-9.5.
What does this all mean? Well, first it probably means we need a larger sample before we get too excited. Much of the work of those young players has come against other teams' reserves and/or in blowouts. The comparative group of seasoned players has had to face other teams' starters and played a lot of crunch time minutes.
I would love, for instance, to see what McDaniels — the No. 28 overall pick who has some major defensive gifts — would do if he was moved into the starting lineup. Perhaps that time will come soon.
Bigger picture, though, the ascent of young players and the disappointment of veterans is simultaneously promising for the future and troubling for the present.
The Wolves probably can't win at a meaningful clip, even when Towns returns, without getting more from Russell, Rubio, Beasley and Okogie. In particular, if a larger sample size of the Towns/Russell pairing doesn't blossom, then Plan A for this reboot is dashed.
Then again, if Towns' return suddenly makes a lot of those other players better simply because of his gifts and ability to space the floor ... and those young players continue with the promise they've shown ... the Wolves could become a real problem — in a good way, as they say — later this season and down the road.